Have you ever tried to decide between two brands of canned soup at the market? A quick side-by-side judgment can be made thanks to the "Nutrition Facts" panel and the list of ingredients. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires food companies to mark most packaged food products with a consistent and truthful label detailing certain nutrient info.
The ingredients that go into making your packaged or prepared foods will be listed somewhere outside of the Nutrition Facts panel. The ingredients are listed in order from most weight to least weight. So the item at the top of the list is the ingredient present in the highest amount by weight. You'd check here to see if a food contains any known allergens.
The Nutrition Facts panel
The Nutrition Facts panel is required to include information on 16 items: serving size, calories, calories from fat, total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrate, dietary fiber, sugars, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. However, certain items may be omitted if the food contains 0 or a specified amount near 0. Nutrition Facts panels may contain some voluntary information.
Here's a rundown of the required elements in the Nutrition Facts panel:
Serving size: You'll spot this at the top of the Nutrition Facts panel. This factoid tells you the portion of that particular food item that was used to determine the information found in the panel. All of the nutritional stats to follow in the panel will depend on this indicated serving. So, if you gulp down all 16 fl oz of orange juice in a bottle, but the label states a serving size is 8 fl oz , you'd have to double the nutritional values to figure out how many calories you've downed or what percentage of a vitamin you've consumed.
Serving sizes are given in common household measures such as cups, teaspoons, tablespoons, ounces (oz), fluid ounces (fl oz), packages, jars, trays, slices, pieces, or fractions (e.g., 1/4 pizza). Except for single-serving containers, the household measure is followed by the metric equivalent in grams or milliliters in parentheses.
% daily value (%DV): The percentage noted beside each nutrient tells you how much of that nutrient the food provides per serving for the serving size indicated at the top of the panel. These calculations are based on Daily Values (DVs), recommendations for a healthy 2,000-calorie diet. They can be used to do a head-to-head comparison between two similarly-sized servings of specific foods. As a rule of thumb, 5% DV or lower is a little while 15% DV or higher in one serving is a lot. Nutrients you may want more of include calcium, iron, fibre, and vitamins A and C. Nutrients you may want less of include fat, saturated and trans fats, and sodium.
Nutrient contents: Now you get to the nutritional nitty-gritty! Most of a Nutrition Facts panel will be devoted to the amount and %DV of the most important core nutrients:
- Calories: Foods give your body energy to do the things it needs to do. Calories are a measurement of that energy. Your body only needs a certain number of calories per day – somewhere between 1,600 and 3,000 calories per day for adults, depending on your gender, age, and how physically active you are. When you exceed your daily calorie needs, extra calories will be stored away. Some is stored as fat, some as carbohydrates in your muscles.
Label-able tip: Check the calorie count on a food label to see how much of your daily tally will be met by eating a serving of that food. Remember to check the serving size specified at the top of the panel and adjust accordingly. For a single serving of any food, 40 calories is "low," 100 calories is "moderate," and 400 calories or more is "high."
- Total fat and calories from fat: Our bodies need fat for growth and energy, but it should make up no more than one-third of our daily total calories, even less for people with high cholesterol or other cardiovascular risk factors. Excess fat gets stored in the belly and beneath the skin, and sometimes finds its way into our blood vessels and organs. When considering which fats to consume, strive to eat more of the good kinds of fats and less of the bad types (limit saturated and trans fats to less than 10% of total daily calories).
Label-able tip: Look at the fat data on the label. You'll probably only see the "bad" fats noted - saturated and trans fats. Add those two together, and whatever you're left with is the total of "good" fats - the polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats (omega-3 fatty acids among them).
- Saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol: Our body creates all of the cholesterol it needs to make the membranes of cells in our body, to keep hormones in balance, to absorb fat-soluble vitamins, and to produce vitamin D. Too much extra cholesterol from foods we eat can become dangerous. The foods that raise your "bad" blood cholesterol are usually the foods high in saturated and trans fats. High cholesterol increases heart attack and stroke risks. Dietary cholesterol does not necessarily affect your blood cholesterol level - this depends on the person. Foods low in saturated and trans fats are also low in dietary cholesterol. Doctors do advise limiting dietary cholesterol intake to somewhere between 200 mg and 300 mg per day, especially if you are at risk of heart disease. No limits have been established for trans fats, but the recommendation is usually "the less the better."
Label-able tip: Know your daily cholesterol limit because, while you'll always see the total cholesterol in milligrams in a food label, labeling the percentage of the daily value is not mandatory. Whenever a food is claimed to be "low cholesterol," be assured the term is clearly defined - in multiple paragraphs - in the FDA regulation.
- Sodium: Excess levels of sodium in the diet can boost blood pressure to unsafe levels in some people. Aim to eat less than 2,300 mg (1 teaspoon) of sodium per day, though people in particular risk groups may need to slash sodium to levels as low as 1,500 mg daily.
Label-able tip: When you see "sodium" on a food label, most of the time it indicates salt (i.e., sodium chloride, or table salt) content. Sodium can lurk inside other ingredients, too, and turns up in high quantities in many soups and prepared foods. A food that contains 5% or less of the daily value of sodium would be considered "low" in the mineral.
- Total carbohydrate, dietary fiber, and sugars: Carbohydrates provide our bodies with energy. Simple carbohydrates found in sugar, fruits, and dairy products release quickly into the body. Complex carbohydrates - starches and fiber found in potatoes, grains, and root vegetables - take longer to break down and provide a slower-burning energy source. About half of your daily calories should come from a carbohydrate source, but any extra will be stored as fat.
Label-able tip: Add the grams of dietary fiber and sugars together and whatever is left in total carbohydrate count will be starches. Look for higher tallies of fiber and lower of sugars.
- Protein: Adults require about 50 g of protein per day, about 6% to 12% of total daily calorie intake, to maintain healthy cells and tissues. Growing children need slightly more. Any protein you eat beyond your body's daily needs will be broken down and stored as fat.
Label-able tip: Check the label to see how many grams of protein are found in the indicated serving of foods and drinks. You'll notice that there's no %DV noted next to protein. That's because most Americans who eat a relatively mixed diet will consume an adequate amount of protein without much trouble.
- Vitamins and minerals: FDA mandates that food labels include information on a few vitamins and minerals - vitamins A and C, and the minerals calcium and iron. Other nutrients may be noted, especially if a food contains high quantities of a nutrient, a healthy asset that food companies would definitely want to highlight.
Label-able tip: Vitamin tallies will be described by percentages of the daily recommended intake value, not by a measurement like milligrams. That's because the notation of vitamin totals can get complicated and confusing. Also, the numbers can mislead. On the one hand, one cup of mustard greens contains 104 mg of calcium, which sounds like a lot, but only meets 10% of the daily value. On the other hand, one cup of spinach contains only 6 mg of iron, but that is 33% of the daily value for that mineral.